Apple’s battle with Qualcomm spreads to the UK

On 19 May 2017 Apple issued a major claim against Qualcomm in the English Court. This is part of a widely reported global dispute between the two giants. The English action includes an Article 102 abuse of dominance claim as well as a FRAND licensing claim and was issued just a month after the English Court’s first FRAND valuation in Unwired Planet v Huawei (Bristows’ blog post here and here). The particulars of the claim are now available and make fascinating reading. 

On the FRAND licensing front, Apple seeks a declaration that Qualcomm has breached its obligations to ETSI, by failing to offer a FRAND licence for Standard Essential Patents (SEPs), seeking excessive and non-FRAND royalties. 

As far as competition law and Article 102 is concerned, Apple makes a number of arguments. 

It claims that Qualcomm is abusing its dominant position in the markets for LTE, CDMA and UMTS chipsets by refusing to license its SEPs to competing chipmakers. This means that if a chipset is purchased from a company other than Qualcomm, the purchaser must then obtain a licence from Qualcomm for use of Qualcomm’s standard-essential IP. Apple asserts that Qualcomm’s practices exclude chipset competitors from the market, as well as being in breach of its contractual FRAND obligations.

Apple also complains about various aspects of agreements between itself and Qualcomm. These expired in 2015, and in 2016 Apple began to purchase chipsets from Intel. This has doubtless affected the nature and timing of the litigation.

As mentioned above, Apple contends that Qualcomm’s royalties are excessively high. It then argues that to reduce the effective royalty rate it had to pay, it had no commercial alternative other than to conclude rebate agreements which involved granting Qualcomm exclusivity over Apple’s chipset supply. Apple maintains that one consequence of this arrangement has been to limit the emergence of other chipset manufacturers, who have been precluded from competing for Apple’s custom. Because of Apple’s importance as a purchaser of chipsets this is argued to have foreclosed a significant part of the potential demand. Qualcomm’s practice of forcing customers to take a licence and to agree to exclusionary terms is said to further reinforce the exclusionary effects. 

A particular feature of the rebate agreement which is criticised by Apple is that it was conditional on Apple agreeing not to pursue litigation or governmental complaints that the royalties were ‘non-FRAND’. 

Apple explains that Qualcomm’s royalties are charged in addition to the price of the chipset itself, and are based on the price of the end device being sold by the licensee, rather than on the price of the chipset in which it is argued that all the patented technology is practised. Apple takes the position that in order to be acceptable the royalty should be calculated by reference to the smallest saleable patent practising unit (SSPPU) – in this instance the chipset, rather than the phone. This is said to guard against situations where two phones that use the same Qualcomm technology could incur significantly different royalty obligations for use of the same SEPs based only on their different end sales prices. Those sales prices which differ because of completely different aspects of the phones, such as design or additional functionalities. This issue was not considered by Birss J in Unwired Planet v Huawei. The argument was raised in Vringo v ZTE, but was dropped before trial. 

Apple makes several arguments which are in tension with the recent Unwired Planet v Huawei Judgment. These include: that licensees can be acting in a FRAND manner even though they refuse to take a licence of an entire patent portfolio of declared SEPs, irrespective of validity or essentiality; that the FRAND royalty for an SEP should reflect the intrinsic value of the patent; and that the standard (of which that technology is a part) constitutes value that Qualcomm has not created and which it should not seek to capture through its FRAND licensing. 

Finally, in an attempt to demonstrate that Qualcomm’s royalty is not FRAND, Apple states that Qualcomm holds a quarter of the declared SEPs for the LTE standard and compares Qualcomm’s royalty with the (presumably lower) licence fee it pays other SEP holders, who combined hold one third of the relevant SEPs.

Ultimately, Apple claims that Qualcomm’s undertaking to ETSI is ineffective to constrain its dominance as an SEP owner. This may be a direct response to comments by Birss J in Unwired Planet v Huawei that an SEP holder may not always hold a dominant position, for example, because of the FRAND obligation and the risk that implementers may engage in patent hold-out. 

Conclusion

Developments in this case will be interesting when set against the recent judgment in Unwired Planet v Huawei, in which Birss J considered many of the issues raised by Apple. But Apple also makes arguments that go well beyond the issues considered in that case. For example, Apple’s arguments about exclusionary rebates may be affected by the Intel judgment, due to be handed down by the EU’s Court of Justice on 6 September 2017.  It also sits alongside parallel antitrust litigation in the US, including retaliatory actions by Qualcomm designed to exclude Apple’s handsets from import to the US. How this case, and the global dispute, evolves will be fascinating to follow – and not only for those with an interest in SEP and FRAND issues.

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